Friday, January 9, 2009

Snake Safety

What do you do when you’re working in your garden and you see a six foot snake coiled in the bushes, shaking its tail? Most people freak out and hack it to death with a shovel only to find out that it was a bull snake, and not a rattlesnake.

Instead of putting yourself or an animal in danger, the best thing to do is call the police dispatcher at 662-8222. They have a list of several Wildlife Center volunteers who will come to your house to remove snakes. The safe capture and release program has been going on for over 15 years. Volunteers are trained by Tom Wyant, who has been handling rattlers for nearly thirty years.

People’s unrealistic fear of snakes is what motivated Wyant to get involved in the safe capture and release program.

The only way most non-venomous snakes can defend themselves is to act like they’re venomous. They can make their heads look more triangular, they can coil up, and they can puff up their bodies to look like a rattlesnake. They even shake their tails, which can sound like a rattlesnake if they’re in leaves or dry grass.

“A bull snake will do anything he can to make you think he’s a rattlesnake,” said Jim Finley, a volunteer who specializes in relocating snakes. Too often, this self-defense mechanism is what gets them killed by humans.

The only poisonous snakes in Los Alamos are rattlesnakes. There are diamondback rattlesnakes and prairie rattlesnakes. Because a prairie rattlesnake has a blotchy pattern on their back, they look like bull snakes. The best way to tell the difference between a rattlesnake and a bull snake is to look at the tail. Bull snakes have pointy tails while rattlesnake tails are blunt.

Another way to tell if a snake has venom is if its pupils are elliptical instead of round…not that you’d want to get close enough to find out.

If you do see a rattlesnake up close, freeze. They react to movement and can see heat radiating off exposed limbs. “You can’t move faster than a snake,” warns Finley. “But you can scream bloody murder and it won’t hurt anything, because they can’t hear.”

Before trying to get away, it’s crucial to divert the snake’s attention. If you’re with someone, get them to distract the snake and then move. If you’re alone, a hat might do the trick. Drop it by the snake and then move.

Venomous snakes are more likely to bite if they’re cornered or threatened. There are volunteers in Los Alamos and White Rock who specialize in relocating snakes without causing injury to the snake or to anyone in your family. If you see a snake in your yard, call them at 662-8222.

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